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Media Watch 2003

03 May 2003
Source: Times
Author: Michael Theodoulou
Comment: The following article appeared in the Times of London on 3 May 2003
Cyprus Britons told: we want our homes back

WHEN Yiannis and Olga Georgiou finally returned this week to the house they were forced to flee 29 years ago they were dismayed to find an English woman living in it.

It was little consolation that the house in the picturesque village of Lapithos was in perfect condition. “She had taken good care of it because she thought it belongs to her, but it doesn’t,” said Mr Georgiou, 59, who has the original title deeds.

Mrs Georgiou, moist-eyed, added: “The British Government doesn’t recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus so why do Britons buy our houses and land?”

About 162,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced when Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 after a short-lived Greek-inspired coup in Nicosia. Huge numbers have flocked back since last week’s surprise decision by the Turkish Cypriot authorities to allow limited access across the “green line” for the first time in three decades. There have been scenes of reconciliation between the long-estranged communities. But the euphoria has not been shared by hundreds of Britons who leased or bought forcibly abandoned Greek Cypriot properties as holiday or retirement homes at bargain prices.

Many have a stridently partisan view of the island’s complex history. “I don’t think the Greek Cypriots have a right to come back here,” a British woman in Lapithos said. “They started the trouble and they lost the war.”

With hopes of a Cyprus settlement growing, many such Britons may well have cause to feel deeply uncomfortable. Greek Cypriots, armed with the deeds to their properties, will line up to reclaim them.

“With the current situation, you’re taking a risk buying here,” Tony Stephens, 55, conceded. He has a 49-year lease from the internationally unrecognised Turkish Cypriot state on a house he renovated in Karmi, once a “totally Greek Cypriot” village. “We are concerned that we might be abandoned, that what we put in could be lost. Some people have invested a lot of money.”

Greek Cypriots have no time for such arguments. “Taking over someone else’s property in this way could be seen as dealing in stolen goods,” Achilleas Demetriades, a British-trained human rights lawyer said. “These people have been warned not to buy such properties and the low prices should have made them suspicious. Judgment day is approaching and they’re beginning to tremble.” There is also scant sympathy from diplomats. “If you put £50,000 on a horse and lose you don’t expect to get your money back,” a senior European envoy said.

Margi Carter, a 56-year-old retired hypnotherapist who lives in the house that Mr Georgiou built, said: “I don’t feel guilty at all.”

She bought it “freehold” from a Turkish Cypriot when she came to northern Cyprus on a honeymoon with her late husband, Simon, in 1995, she said. She invested £92,000 in the four-bedroom house with a sea view. As British-run estate agencies in northern Cyprus boast, similar properties in the internationally recognised south would cost at least twice as much. “If it came to it, I’d consider compensation because it would be incorrect not to, but I’d hate to have to move,” Mrs Carter said. “It’s got great sentimental value — it’s the only thing Simon and I had together.”

The Georgious claim a far deeper emotional attachment. Mr Georgiou, a former fireman who lost his right arm to a Turkish shell in 1974, built the house on land that his wife inherited from her mother.

They had lived in it for just three months when Turkey invaded. The youngest of their three children was less than a fortnight old. The family fled with few belongings, expecting to return within days. The couple have since lived in spartan refugee housing.

Mrs Carter’s encounter with the Georgious was awkward but courteous on both sides.

Not all such meetings have been as polite. Local television has shown Britons in Karmi refusing to open their doors to returning refugees. Many Greek Cypriots have contrasted the often frosty receptions from Britons to the warm welcomes given by Turkish Cypriots.

One British woman in Karmi grumbled that the Greek Cypriots who were suddenly arriving “don’t have much respect for other people’s property”. They entered properties without always knocking and picked flowers without asking, she complained. Kathy Nye, 72, a widow, said a lot of people had been upset by the “aggressive behaviour” of Greek Cypriots impatient to see their old homes. She has put a chain on the gate of her house.

“This is my property,” Joe Harrington, 59, said as he sipped a sundowner on the patio of a four-bedroom seaview house in Lapithos that he bought “freehold” two years ago. “We put in about £70,000,” he added.

What if the Greek Cypriot owner asked him to return the house? “I’d tell him to bugger off,” Mr Harrington beamed.

The house was built by Savvas Gambroudiou, 71, a retired carpenter who has lived in a two-bedroom refugee house near Limassol for nearly 30 years. When The Times passed on what Mr Harrington had said, Mr Gambroudiou’s son, Costas, 36, replied: “Tell him there’s nothing personal but, of course, if there’s a solution (to the Cyprus problem), he’s going to have to return the house. My father has the only legal title deeds and he wants it back.”"